Here come the Rangers, '24/7' and the unknown

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Artem Anisimov of the New York Rangers celebrates

Artem Anisimov of the New York Rangers celebrates scoring a goal in the second period against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Madison Square Garden. (Dec. 8, 2011) Photo Credit: Getty Images

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

The Rangers are ready for their close-ups -- at an angle from which no New York team has been seen before.

What might we find? Who knows?

That's the fun of HBO's "24/7" series, which, over four weeks starting at 10 p.m. tomorrow, takes us behind the scenes with the Rangers and Flyers before, during and after the NHL Winter Classic.

Unlike most sports documentaries, critics won't see the show before the rest of you do, partly owing to its tight production schedule, partly to the tight secrecy that shrouds it.

The best I could do to gain advance insight was speak by phone last week with Scott Boggins, a producer who oversees the footage of the Rangers pouring in from crews embedded with the team.

This was only three days into shooting, but even if it had been a week, there was only so much he would or could share. He said trust between the teams and the network is vital.

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That is particularly true because unlike "Hard Knocks," a production of HBO and NFL Films that in 2010 featured the Jets, "24/7" unfolds during the regular season.

That makes HBO's primary consideration to not compromise teams competitively by revealing injury news or strategy. Beyond that, pretty much anything goes. Teams have not tried to censor content. Yet.

"There aren't any ground rules," Boggins said.

That was best illustrated at a pivotal moment in last season's "24/7" -- the first time HBO had followed a hockey team -- in the midst of a losing streak for the Capitals that included a 7-0 loss to the Rangers.

"After the seventh loss in a row, we just didn't know how to react," Boggins said. "But [Capitals GM] George McPhee took our field producer aside and said, 'Don't worry about it. Just do your job.' "

The series wound up producing television gold, including a spectacularly profane locker- room speech by former Caps coach Bruce Boudreau that would have made Jets coach Rex Ryan blush.

"Clearly, it was an amazing moment that was captured on camera," Boggins said, "but we're really privileged to be in there and be in the locker room."

Boggins considered Boudreau's rant "an honest reaction" to a difficult stretch. But it raises an issue common to documentaries: How much does the cameras' presence alter behavior?

Not much, Boggins insisted.

"We haven't observed any of these guys playing to the camera, not at all," he said. "They're focused on one job and one job only."

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Of course, that was before the Rangers' Artem Anisimov pretended his hockey stick was a rifle last week and pointed it at the Lightning net to celebrate his goal, setting off a mini-riot and prompting MSG analysts to wonder if he was influenced by the show.

Hmm. Well, we won't know until Wednesday whether the incident even makes the cut, a painful process during which most of the up to 750 hours of recorded footage goes unused.

Each team has nine crews and three full-time cameras attached to it.

Boggins and his Flyers counterpart, Bentley Weiner, oversee staffs in a Manhattan production facility. Then senior producer Dave Harmon works with them to mesh the teams' story threads.

The hope is the end product will be as well received as last year's, which averaged 2.5 million viewers. Boggins said there is no shortage of characters on the Rangers.

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"We go in there with the best of our abilities in terms of researching and figuring out what the story lines are," he said, "but everything evolves minute to minute, day to day."

Boggins grew up in San Diego, without a hockey background to draw on. But like many who deal with hockey players, he has found them to be "salt-of-the-earth-type guys, genuinely terrific to work with."

That only adds to the sense of duty to tell their stories well.

"We feel a real responsibility to these guys to do the absolute best shows we can," he said. "It's a rare look into their lives."

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